Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), UBS AG (UBSN), Morgan Stanley (MS), and Citigroup Inc. (C) have consented to pay a combined $9.1 million to settle Financial Industry Regulatory Authority claims that they did not adequately supervise the sale of leveraged and inverse exchange-traded funds in 2008 and 2009. $7.3 million of this is fines. The remaining $1.8 million will go to affected customers. The SRO says that the four financial firms had no reasonable grounds for recommending these securities to the investors, yet they each sold billions of dollars of ETFs to clients. Some of these investors ended up holding them for extended periods while the markets were exhibiting volatility.
It was in June 2009 that FINRA cautioned brokers that long-term investors and leveraged and inverse ETFs were not a good match. While UBS suspended its sale of these ETFs after the SRO issued its warning, it eventually resumed selling them but doesn’t recommend them to clients anymore. Morgan Stanley also had announced that it would place restrictions on ETF sales. Meantime, Wells Fargo continues to sell leveraged and inverse ETF. However, a spokesperson for the financial firm says that it has implemented enhanced procedures and policies to ensure that it meets its regulatory responsibilities. Citigroup also has enhanced its policies, procedures, and training related to the sale of these ETFs. (FINRA began looking into how leveraged and inverse ETFs are being marketed to clients in March after one ETN, VelocityShares Daily 2x VIX Short-Term (TVIX), which is managed by Credit Suisse (CS), lost half its worth in two days.)
The Securities and Exchange Commission describes ETFs as (usually) registered investment companies with shares that represent an interest in a portfolio with securities that track an underlying index or benchmark. While leveraged ETFs look to deliver multiples of the performance of the benchmark or index they are tracking, inverse ETFs seek to do the opposite. Both types of ETFs seek to do this with the help of different investment strategies involving future contracts, swaps, and other derivative instruments. The majority of leveraged and inverse ETFs “reset” daily. How they perform over extend time periods can differ from how well their benchmark or underlying index does during the same duration. Per Bloomberg, leveraged and inverse ETFs hold $29.3 billion in the US.
“These highly leveraged investments were – and still are – being bought into the accounts of unsophisticated investors at these and other firms,” said Leveraged and Inverse ETF Attorney William Shepherd. “Although most firms do not allow margin investing in retirement accounts, many did not screen accounts to flag these leveraged investments which can operate on the same principle as margin accounts.”
For investors, it is important that they understand the risks involved in leveraged and inverse ETFs. Depending on what investment strategies the ETF employs, the risks may vary. Long-term investors should be especially careful about their decision to invest in leveraged and inverse ETFs.
Finra Sanctions Citi, Morgan Stanley, UBS, Wells Fargo $9.1M For Leveraged ETFs, The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2012
Leveraged and Inverse ETFs: Specialized Products with Extra Risks for Buy-and-Hold Investors, SEC
FINRA investigating exchange-traded notes: spokesperson, Reuters, March 29, 2012
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